The rise of the progressives

A few predictions for this November. Charlie Baker loses in his second effort to be governor. Incumbent John Tierney bests Richard Tisei. Republican challengers largely fail in their efforts to capture seats in the Massachusetts state Senate and House of Representatives. And for good measure, New Hampshire. Senator Jeanne Shaheen edges out transplant Scott Brown. There’s a theme here: Democrats win, and Republicans lose.

I could be wrong about any or all of these, of course. Each race has its own dynamics, and individual factors ranging from personality to campaign trail gaffes can influence outcomes. But there is a broad trend at play that deserves notice. Call it the rise of the progressives.

Scott Brown won a US Senate seat in January 2010, a moment that coincided with mounting voter anger over the economy, fears about proposed health care reform, and the growth of the Tea Party. Brown’s win was remarkable precisely because it occurred in Massachusetts, a state seen as the nation’s liberal bastion. It seemed like an inflection point, a moment that presaged a wholesale change in the nation’s politics.


Rather than inflection, however, that election now looks like a conservative high. It’s not that progressives have bounced back with brighter and bolder ideas. But the right is looking out of touch while it’s Democrats who speak to concerns — both in the social and economic sphere — about which voters increasingly care. They have one other bragging point too: They’ve done well.

Thus, less than three years after his stunning win, Brown lost to Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat who held herself out as a true progressive. Last year, Stan Rosenberg, liberal stalwart from Amherst, sewed up the Senate presidency well over a year in advance of its anticipated vacancy. Meanwhile, political observers have noted a striking fact about this year’s Democratic gubernatorial field: No one is a moderate.

Why? In part because on one set of questions, lumped together in the clumsy acronym of LGBT rights (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender), there is no moderate position. That’s the nature of civil rights — either you’re for them or against them — and here opponents are fighting a rear-guard action, battling against a tidal wave of changing attitudes.


Then there is the intensifying worry over income inequality. Republicans react to the subject as if it’s an attack on the rich, arguing that wealth per se is not the problem. But that misses the point. The American middle class is in deep trouble. Even as the economy has expanded, its incomes have remained flat. Meanwhile, the middle classes of other countries are catching up to or even — in the case of Canada — surpassing the United States, according to a recent New York Times analysis. It’s an issue with the potential to move votes. Democrats don’t necessarily know the solution, but they are more willing to talk about it and offer up proposals (such as a raise in the minimum wage, easier unionization, and paid parental leave) that seem to address it.

Finally, there is the simple fact that results matter, and (income equality notwithstanding) the results in Massachusetts have been quite good. The Bay State once elected GOP governors believing it was necessary to have someone with fiscal rectitude riding herd over free-spending Democrats. If that were true, than the last eight years under Governor Deval Patrick should have been disastrous. Instead, the state performed better in the Great Recession than the rest of the nation and bounced back more quickly. From a 2009 high of 8.7 percent, the unemployment rate is now 6.3 percent. The state budget is in decent shape. And one merely needs to drive around and observe the cranes that dot the landscape or the lines outside of restaurants to realize that there is an economic boom afoot. When times seem good, any impetus for change is undermined.


All of these combine to the benefit of Massachusetts progressives: They’ve proven they can manage an economy while at the same time offer up positions on civil rights and the middle class that resonate with voters. That’s why this election season Massachusetts shifts even more leftward. Does that make it an anomaly or — for the rest of the nation — a harbinger of things to come?

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.